Toast is never toast

I've written about dialogue but what about the stage business? Action in a scene - a character moving through a space, physically interacting with other characters - serves several functions. It enlivens the narrative while grounding it in a fictional reality. And it paints a picture, allowing the reader to visualize the story. I'm a fan of interweaving stage business with dialogue, sometimes even using it to replace dialogue tags (he said/ she said). For example, consider:

I don't know, John said. It was there this morning.
I don't know. John buttered his toast. It was there this morning.

This example came from fellow Port Authority writer, Jamie, who smartly pointed out that the toast only deserves to be in the scene if it serves a greater purpose. It's not enough for the toast to highlight the speakers.

Now consider this:

Where's the cheque book? Nora asked, searching the junk drawer.
Dunno. John buttered his toast. It was there this morning.

Better right?

I'd probably take it a little further, show John swiping a pat of butter off the block, describe the dry scrape of knife on toast. Nora, meanwhile, pulls out scissors and rubber bands and junk mail and pens. John dips his knife into the jam and spreads a thick glob of strawberry over the greasy toast. Nora slams the junk drawer shut, yanks another one open.

This is a lot of unnecessary detail and most of it would be cut back in revisions but do you smell what I'm cooking? The toast now tells us who is speaking, suggests something about motivation, and gives insight into character. It furthers the action. The toast provides subtext - something unsaid to read between the lines. The toast is multi-tasking.


Advice from other writers

Glimmer Train - long time home of incredible, award-winning short fiction...have you all submitted work to them? you really should - has a couple of instructive essays on their website at the moment.

First up, British author Rowena Macdonald's tips for writing dialogue. My favourites are: 2. Don't dump too much information in dialogue. In real life, we don't always helpfully explain what's going on AND 7. Don't be afraid to let conversations hang unresolved in mid-air and move onto another scene.

MFA director Josh Henkin explores the link between plot and character. Plot, he argues, is discovered by interrogating character: "My graduate students often tell me they have trouble with plot, but what they're really telling me is they have trouble with character. I remind my students to ask themselves a hundred questions about their characters. Better yet, they should ask themselves a thousand questions, because in the answers to those questions lie the seeds of a narrative." This is a truth I know and yet somehow often forget. When you're stuck on something, go back to character.



The voices in your head

Characters come into their own when I first hear them speak. And that's how I primarily write dialogue - it bubbles up from the unconscious part of my brain that is always at work. I may be crap at finding endings but putting words in characters' mouths has always felt natural.

But like any other part of the craft, there is some element of science here too. Here are some technical suggestions:

1. Don't rely too heavily on dialogue to carry plot or develop character.

2. Less is more. Three lines of dialogue? Odds are you need only one. Remember: what is left unsaid is often more powerful than what is said.

3. Dialogue gets good when it isn't straight forward. When characters lie or hold back or speak at cross purposes. This is how you bake in irony, double meanings, and conflict, thereby making the scene more layered and interesting.

Fiction has to seem realistic without actually being realistic.

4. Don't underestimate the power of indirect speech. It proceeds at a swifter pace - helpful if your characters have a lot of talking to do - and is easier to nail than direct dialogue.

5. Dialogue should multi-task. If dialogue reveals character and ratchets up tension, if it propels the plot forward and makes you laugh, then it's all much more interesting.

6. Read the work of other writers and see how they go about it.

7. Listen closely to how real people speak. Listen to rhythm and cadence, how thoughts are phrased, the way people of different ages and backgrounds sound. Pay enough attention and you'll develop an ear for dialogue and an instinct for crafting it. Also, you can straight up just steal things you overheard friends and strangers saying.

8. Which is not to say that your characters should speak the way real people do. For one thing, we talk way too much in real life. Fiction has to seem realistic without actually being realistic. Allow a sentence to stand in for a monologue. Sure, in the first draft, write all the pauses and ums and uhs and verbal ticks and quirks of accent into a character's speech. But then later, when you're revising, delete, delete, delete and just leave a few things behind, a little bit of seasoning to give the reader a taste.





Last night I went to see the TIFF film Maudie, a biopic about the Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis (1903-1970). It's a beautiful movie and Sally Hawkins delivers a pitch-perfect performance as the title character but what really struck me was the script by Sherry White.

Maud Lewis is famed for her paintings - cheerful, primary coloured evocations of rural Nova Scotia and fuzzy cats - but what is truly incredible about her work is the fact that she could create any of it at all. Lewis suffered from birth defects that left her hunch-backed with deformed fingers and a chin that pressed into her chest. As a child she developed juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, a condition that worsened over time so that by the end of her life, she was confined to a small corner of her one room cottage where she spent all her time painting by the window, the only available source of light.

But Maudie is not a film about disability. Certainly, Lewis' hobbled walk and odd gait, her crippled hands, these are all present from the start, but her physical limitations aren't the point of the story. If anything, they blend in with all the obstacles of her life - the early loss of both parents, an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, poverty, a callous brother and aunt. At its core, Maudie is a love story. Not a love story about a cripple, a love story about an artist and a fish peddler, "two odd socks" thrown together by life. This is so powerful.

Also powerful is the dialogue which was wry and concise and rang true to life. At one point Lewis and her husband have an argument in a car. It's a turning point in the plot, the only real fight the two characters have. And what is fantastic is their dialogue which is at cross purposes. Each character has a different grievance to get off their chest. Everett speaks over Maud; he says one thing but really he means another. She tries to tell him something but can't get the words out. And of course the audience gets it. The careful writing in the script has brought us to a place where we know these characters. We understand the subtext. And the film is stronger for the restraint.